Jack McNamara is the artistic director of New Perspectives, a theatre company that brings international stories to venues of all sizes across the UK.
Our planet is full of art, artists and storytellers. Many may be quite traditional, but among them are always a few ground-breakers who push their art into unexpected places. This is largely what drives me in programming my theatre company, New Perspectives. What is out there that I haven’t discovered yet, that will shake up the way I feel and think?
As soon as you begin to explore new terrain, one discovery ends up leading to another. I recently read a surreal book of short stories called The Iraqi Christ (Comma Press) by Hassan Blasim and, much like the art that came out of Europe after both World Wars, it fascinated me that the fiction emerging from Iraq since the invasion had such a distinctly absurdist tone to it. Following this line, I came across another contemporary Iraqi novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin) by Ahmed Saadawi, which took post-war absurdity to a whole new level. Inspired, I got hold of the rights and we are now touring it as a full production next year.
Seeking out strange gems from around the world is exciting, but not without challenges for a touring company. Convincing the wider population to come to the theatre at all is an increasing effort, so adding unfamiliar foreign titles into the mix is little help. And yet we will always do it because, even if the sell is harder, I believe that the rewards of encountering a great international imagination is worth it. If we consigned ourselves to British cuisine, imagine how deprived our tastes buds would be! Yet while global foods have entered the mainstream, global art (particularly if it’s live) can still be viewed as risky. There seems to be an assumption that it will be inaccessible or heavy-handed, that it has come here, po-faced, to speak of unrelatable matters and distant hardships.
Aki Kaurismäki, the cult Finnish filmmaker behind our recent touring production The Man Without a Past, might well deal in hardship but he does so with a wild sense of humour that rural audiences could not get enough of. This was not a play about things that happen elsewhere. Our austere Finnish setting dissolved into the walls of the village hall, as a story about a lost man’s salvation in a shipping community became everyone’s story. And yet our production was not about neutralising the foreignness of the tale, but celebrating it. Because while art does have an ability to make us see ourselves it should equally give us an opportunity to see other people, and perhaps reassess what we think of as foreign.
We had a similar response last year when we toured our award-winning production of The Fishermen, an adaptation of a prize-winning Nigerian novel. At the venue booking stage, the production was diagnosed as ‘high risk’ amid fears there may not be a strong theatre audience for new African work on tour. Yet the production played to full houses and will soon transfer to the West End, clearly indicating a taste out there for African voices.
Later this year we tour debbie tucker green’s play trade; an intense lyrical piece performed by three Caribbean women, which will be played in rural village halls. This will offer rural audiences a first chance to hear the words of one of our most important contemporary playwrights and vividly encounter a culture that scarcely finds itself in the English countryside. If all of such work is not yet familiar, and seen as ‘high risk’ as a result, then surely it is our job as programmers to start making it familiar.
A great privilege in programming a touring company is the opportunity to bring people into contact with something they may otherwise not have come across. For me, the possibility of forging new connections, insight and empathy far outweighs the desire to reinforce existing affinities. This is not to suggest that our internationalism has a strictly moral agenda. Ultimately, we want these shows to bring joy to people, and give them a taste for something outside of the everyday. As British politics eats itself through a cycle of self-focus, art can be a way of remembering that there is a much wider world out there full of things to discover and savour.